A Look at the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health
By Samantha Herrera
In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 put both of my parents out of work. It was an upset to the general order of our lives and our financial situation, but we appreciated that it was out of an abundance of caution in the face of a novel virus that was proving more and more deadly with each passing day. When my father, Jorge Herrera, eventually returned to work, his workplace had instituted several new safety guidelines to make sure that everyone was remaining healthy. They provided face masks for all employees and monitored their health. They reworked the layout of the workspace and common areas and staggered work shifts to make it easier to practice social distancing. My family was very nervous about my father returning to work in the middle of such a dangerous situation, but we felt calmer knowing that there were several measures in place to prevent viral transmission.
Everything was proceeding as normally as was possible in this pandemic. In late May, we enjoyed a three-day Memorial Day weekend at home, simply relaxing and taking a break from the various stresses around us. The following Tuesday, May 26th, my father returned to work. However, upon arriving at his workplace, he was told to go back home. Someone at the factory had contracted COVID-19, and now all the workers and their families had to get tested.
Thankfully, our county gives free COVID-19 tests to whoever needs them. My dad, mom, and I got tested on May 27th. My mom and I both tested negative for the virus, but my dad tested positive. We have a small house, so it was incredibly difficult to remain physically distanced, but my parents handled it with great grace and composure. We were all nervous and worried about the effect that the disease might have on my father, as he has some preexisting conditions that put him at greater risk of severe complications. Thankfully, he never developed any major symptoms. At the beginning, he lost his sense of taste and smell, had a terrible cough, and maintained a higher-than-normal temperature, but never really had a fever. However, he has since recuperated and has no lingering physical symptoms.
Interestingly, throughout my father’s experience with COVID-19, he has struggled much more with the mental aspects of it than with the physical symptoms. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has highlighted this particular danger in recent interviews, saying, “. . . There are a considerable number of individuals who have a post-viral syndrome that really in many respects, can incapacitate them for weeks and weeks following so-called recovery and learning of the virus” (Rubin, 2020). At the beginning of his second week of quarantine, he began waking up in the middle of the night, terrified that he was no longer breathing. We would check in on him, and ensure that everything was fine, but he always felt he was short of breath. My dad developed claustrophobia. He felt like the walls were going to close in around him and that he did not have enough air to breathe. He was only calm when he was outside, and given that he could not leave the house or go anywhere, he spent most of his days sitting in the backyard with a mask on. He would sit out there for a while, feel his claustrophobic symptoms subside, and then return inside. However, shortly after settling himself inside again, he would suffer another panic attack that he was not breathing correctly and have to go back outside. It became a common occurrence to see him sitting on a chair in the backyard by the side of the house.
His attacks of claustrophobia came to a head a few days before the end of his quarantine. Despite assurances that he was breathing and all signs showing that his breathing and oxygen levels were completely normal, he was panicked and desperate to get out of the house. He ended up going to the hospital, where they confirmed our suspicions: his body was fine, but his mind was making up ideas about COVID-19 side effects. The doctors said that there was not much they could do for him, since there were not any physical symptoms to treat. They gave him an inhaler so that he could feel calmer and sent him back home. His hospital trip gave him a little more peace of mind, but he still struggled to keep his thoughts under control. The most difficult time for my father was at night; he could not sleep more than two hours at a time. It was only when he began sleeping in the car, where he could open the windows and feel the air circulating, that he seemed more at peace.
Now, my father has returned to work and started to live his life more normally again. He still wakes up at least once every night, but no longer feels the need to go sleep in the car. He has been more lethargic and fatigued than he was before he got sick, but has started taking walks around the neighborhood, which seem to help him recover energy. He still deals with stress and anxiety about COVID-19 and the general pandemic, but has been coping well with it, his main source of comfort being the ability to talk through his situation with other people. Nearly everybody that worked at the factory with my father contracted the disease, and even though they all eventually recuperated, they all deal with lingering mental symptoms, as well. They take comfort in talking to one another about their situations and what they have been dealing with, knowing that they each can relate to what the other is describing. Their experience is not unique to them, however. In an article written for the Journal of the American Medical Association, Hannah Lockman from Kentucky recounts similar lingering symptoms of the disease: “Well, COVID has eaten my brain because I can’t remember how to remember words, keep track of medication . . . My brain just feels like there’s a fog” (Rubin, 2020).
The ordeals of my father and his coworkers have highlighted more than ever the need for greater, more comprehensive mental health care. It has been a little more than five months since the news broke of the factory’s outbreak, and nearly everyone at that factory is still struggling with a variety of mental health symptoms. They are all back at work, never having received any form of treatment for these lingering cognitive side effects. Those that ended up going to the doctor because of their disease were told there was nothing that they could do for their psychological symptoms. We must reform the system to make it easier for people to receive mental health treatments, especially during this global pandemic for a virus that attacks the mind as much and as severely as it attacks the body. As noted in a report by the World Health Organization, “A failure to take people’s emotional well-being seriously will lead to long-term social and economic costs to society” (WHO, 2020).
About the Author
Samantha Herrera is a junior at Harvard College concentrating in Neuroscience.
Rubin, R. (2020, 23 September). As Their Numbers Grow, COVID-19 “Long Haulers” Stump Experts. JAMA Network COVID-19 Resource Center. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2771111
World Health Organization (2020, 14 May). Substantial investment needed to avert mental health crisis. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news/item/14-05-2020-substantial-investment-needed-to-avert-mental-health-crisis